Ridgway's plea deal triggers challenges to death penalty

January 18, 2004 

Lawyers for a man charged with killing a Des Moines police officer say he shouldn't face the death penalty because the infamous Green River Killer didn't.

Some convicts already condemned to Washington's death row are asking the state Supreme Court to reconsider their sentences, calling the state's death-penalty system hopelessly flawed.

On Friday, attorneys for Charles Champion urged a King County Superior Court judge to dismiss the possibility that the 21-year-old man could be executed, arguing the state's way of deciding who lives or dies is arbitrary.

The debate centers on Gary Leon Ridgway, who pleaded guilty in November to killing 48 women. King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng spared Ridgway's life in return for information about the crimes, but he is seeking the death penalty for Champion, who faces trial in May.

Under state law, county prosecutors decide whether to ask jurors for a death sentence. Maleng has said each case is different and cannot be compared with others.

Deputy prosecutor Steve Fogg said a jury should first decide whether Champion is guilty and deserves a death sentence for the shooting of Des Moines officer Steven Underwood before his lawyers try to argue that it's an unfair punishment.

Champion's lawyers noted that Ridgway planned each murder, covered up his crimes and, according to prosecutors, showed no remorse. His life was spared because he cooperated.

Champion cooperated, his lawyers said, by encouraging his brother to talk with police about the shooting. Attorney Jackie Walsh argued Champion didn't plan his alleged crime and told people he was sorry it happened.

"If cooperation mattered in Ridgway's case, it has to matter in Charles Champion's," she said. "You're rewarding someone for killing more people. That theory has no rational sense to it."

Fogg disputed that the decision to seek the death penalty against Champion was arbitrary, calling the shooting of a police officer "an attack on the system" that takes "a special kind of evil."

Meanwhile, some convicts already on Washington's death row say the state's death penalty is hopelessly flawed if they can face execution when Ridgway - the most prolific convicted serial killer in U.S. history - was spared.

Later this year, lawyer Thomas Kummerow expects to argue that serial killer Robert Yates, who cooperated with Spokane authorities but was sentenced to die for two Pierce County murders, should not face execution in light of Ridgway's plea deal.

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